By CRAIG S. SMITH
Published: May 15, 2006
VISOKO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Semir Osmanagic stopped to shake hands and have his photograph taken with a group of mud-flecked Bosnian villagers, pickaxes in hand, on a steep hillside above this small medieval trading town on a bend of the Bosna River. They have dug away four feet of roots and clay to expose slanted slabs of sedimentary stone.
"Look at that megalith, it's got to weigh 40 tons," Mr. Osmanagic said eagerly, pointing to one of the roughly rectangular-shaped stones. "After so many thousands of years, it is amazing that they are still here."
Mr. Osmanagic, an amateur archaeologist, is convinced that he has discovered a huge ancient pyramid that will rewrite the history of Europe — not to mention that of Bosnia, a country suffering from war recriminations, political divisions and sunken pride. Anthropological genetics, he said, has proved that Bosnia is "the second oldest oasis of life in Europe," and the pyramid proves Bosnia is a source of civilization on the Continent.
"It's not just any pyramid," he said from beneath his flat-crowned Navajo hat, which has led the local press to liken him to Indiana Jones. "It's the biggest pyramid in the world."
Archaeologists and historians inside and outside Bosnia are appalled, insisting it is simply a peculiarly symmetrical bit of geology. But pyramid fever is spreading through the country. Largely uncritical television and newspaper reports have made the photogenic Mr. Osmanagic a national celebrity, and volunteers are flocking to Visoko hoping to help uncover the Pyramid of the Sun, a prehistoric edifice that will redeem the country by giving it a glorious and important past. "After all the blood and mass graves, this gives people something positive to talk about," said Zlatko Bekbic, who came from the northeastern town of Tuzla to see the supposed pyramid.
Asim Islamovic, 67, climbs the steep and slippery hill daily to dig with his toothless wife and middle-aged daughter. He lost a leg during the war that began in 1992, after the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina broke away from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. The horrors that followed introduced the world to the term "ethnic cleansing."
"We are changing the image of the whole country," Mr. Islamovic said. "We're showing Bosnia in a good way."
But not everyone is elated. "This isn't a pyramid, it's a bad circus," said Zilka Kujundzic-Vejzagic, a specialist in prehistoric archaeology at the National Museum in Sarajevo. She is one of 21 experts who published an open letter in Bosnian newspapers in April denouncing Mr. Osmanagic's project as bad science and manipulative sociology.
She scoffs at his suggestion that the pyramid is "probably older than the last ice age," saying no humans were even building simple huts then. There is no evidence, she said, that there was ever a civilization in the region organized enough to build such a massive monument. "If there had been a people who could make something like that, we would have found artifacts around it," she said.
Archaeologists in Bosnia have found little more than flint tools from the end of the last ice age and only simple Neolithic settlements that appeared thousands of years after that. The country's most substantial ancient monument is a modest stone city in southern Bosnia built during the third century B.C. by the Illyrians. The Egyptians are believed to have built their pyramids around 3,000 B.C., but even the biggest of them is dwarfed by Mr. Osmanagic's hill, which is 700 feet high.
Ms. Kujundzic-Vejzagic and her peers say that the symmetrical hill that Mr. Osmanagic has seized on was formed when an ancient lake bed buckled from tectonic movement of the earth's crust millions of years ago. As Africa pushed into Europe, geologists say, the flat lake bed broke into shards that were lifted up like pieces of ice at the colliding edge of an ice floe, creating flat-sided hills.
But where archaeologists see geological principles, Mr. Osmanagic sees the grandeur of Bosnian prehistory in which his ancestors built not only the Pyramid of the Sun, but also at least two other giant monuments hidden under grass and trees, which he has named the Pyramids of the Moon and Dragon. These terrestrial lumps, he said, form a triangle.
"Nature could not have created three identical hills in this pattern," he said with matter-of-fact confidence. He tells the daily stream of visitors to his dig that at certain times of year, the shadow of the Pyramid of the Sun moves across the valley and covers the Pyramid of the Moon, "symbolizing that the reign of the sun is over and that of the moon is beginning."
His fans, mostly Bosnian Muslims like himself, include Sulejman Tihic, that group's representative in the country's dysfunctional three-party presidency that includes a Serb and a Croat. While Mr. Osmanagic insists he has broader support, he has little argument with the notion that nationalist pride plays a role in what is happening in Visoko.
"Once you show that you respect your past, people respect you more," he said in slightly accented English, as the pickaxes flew atop his pyramid. "The Bosnian brain is going to excavate this site and show results to the international community."
Visoko, a stronghold of the Bosnian nationalist party, was a major base of the Bosnian Army during the war. The bullet-riddled shell of a bombed-out Serbian house on the south flank of the pyramid-shaped hill attests to the religious tensions that still percolate here.
Nor is it just any hill that Mr. Osmanagic has identified as a prehistoric pyramid. The flat top is the site of a medieval castle that belonged to a 14th-century Christian king, Stefan Tvrtko I, who was buried in a church in the valley below.
Croats identify more with the king and his castle than do Bosnian Muslims, for whom the site is a subtle reminder of Serbian wartime propaganda that claimed there was no such thing as the Bosnian people, arguing that Bosnians were nothing more than Serbs and Croats who switched religions under Turkish occupation hundreds of years ago.
Mr. Osmanagic, 45, studied economics and politics in Sarajevo before moving to Croatia to work in the import and export trade. He left for the United States with his wife and son when the war broke out, and he now owns a metal shop in Houston that makes everything from stainless steel sinks to small copper pyramids that he sells as a novelty item for $40 each — a line that preceded his venture to the Visoko hill.
His true interest, he says, has long been in "the real history of civilization," and over the past 15 years, he repeatedly traveled to Central America to visit the pre-Columbian pyramids there. He wrote a dissertation on Mayan monuments for a doctorate degree at the University of Sarajevo that was published in English. It is full of new-age interpretations of what he saw in the Mayan pyramids. Several other books in his native language have also been published.
While promoting his books in Sarajevo last year, he answered an invitation from the director of the Visoko Historic Heritage Museum to visit the medieval ruins and, he said, quickly recognized the symmetrical hill they sat upon as a pyramid.
Every flat surface, every straight line only confirms his hypothesis. He sees four clearly delineated sides to the Visoko hill, corresponding to the cardinal points. "That was enough to convince me that we are talking about pyramids here," he said, standing on the gentler slope of the hill's west side, the "ceremonial causeway."
Radar analysis, he said, has found "straight hallways" inside the hill that intersect at 90-degree angles. Thermal analysis indicates that the hill dissipates heat more quickly than those around it, he said, as would a pyramid with tunnels inside.
In April, he instructed teams of volunteers to start digging on the slope above the town. They soon hit flat stones, and the mood grew feverish. "When they uncovered the first stone blocks, they were hopping like kids," Mr. Osmanagic said.
The authorities have granted him five years to excavate the site, and he has raised thousands of dollars from the local government and businesses to finance the work. He is trying to get the national government to put the project in its budget next year.
The genius of Mr. Osmanagic's discovery may turn out to be that it is difficult to disprove without a large and costly excavation, allowing an enduring and alluring mythology to grow up around the hill.
A hotel in Visoko has renamed itself the Pyramid Motel, and merchants are doing a brisk business selling miniature Mayan-style pyramids in the shape of the one that Mr. Osmanagic has convinced people lies beneath the wooded slopes.
"You're proof that something has started to move in a positive way," one shop owner, Senar Laletovic, told a visiting reporter. "That alone is interesting."